Safee Sali, Malaysia's goalscoring hero
© AFP

It seems south-east Asia has a plethora of goalscoring royalty, each eulogised for their ability to hit the net. Thailand has Teerasil Dangda, Vietnam boasts Le Cong Vinh, while in Indonesia there is Bambang Pamungkas. In Malaysia, the pin-up goal king is Safee Sali. And the prolific 27-year-old has the track record to prove it.

Already popular in the massive football fan base that is Malaysia, Sali last year took his profile to another level. A five-goal haul lifted the previously underachieving Malaysia to the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Championship for the first time in their history. Celebrity status was immediate, along with a high-profile apparel deal.

And, but for red tape, Sali might now be plying his trade with Cardiff City in the English Championship. Such a deal would be new ground for a Malaysian footballer, but for now Sali must content himself with starring in the highly competitive and popular Indonesian national league.

European dreams
Sali spent September in Cardiff trialling with the Welsh club, impressing manager Malky Mackay, but the Bluebirds boss stated that while the Malaysian impressed, UK work permits are an inevitable issue to overcome. It may well be that Sali, to avoid that hurdle, seeks a move to continental Europe at some stage down the track. Indeed three of his national team colleagues are currently enjoying regular game time in Slovakia.

Sali says it would be a dream come true to secure a contract in Europe. “I really want to play in Europe so I hope, after my trial at Cardiff, to have more chances,” he told FIFA.com. “I would be proud and happy if I can play there [in Europe], and I hope that many Malaysian players can go there. It would help development in Malaysia a lot.”

I would be proud and happy if I can play there [in Europe], and I hope that many Malaysian players can go there. It would help development in Malaysia a lot.
Safee Sali, Malaysia striker

For now, though, Sali is happy to develop his poaching instincts with Pelita Jaya, having previously enjoyed prolific stints with Sarawak and, more recently, Selangor in his homeland. His achievements for both club and country have led to Sali being mentioned alongside iconic Malaysian striker of the 1970s and '80s, the late Mokhtar Dahari.

Indonesia is a step forward for me,” said Sali. “It is different level and experience in Indonesia. The club environment is very good with big crowds. There is a lot of passion for football there.”

Tigers hungry for success
Despite the modest achievements of the national team, football in Malaysia has a massive fan base that is desperate for success. Some 90,000 spectators - the biggest global crowd in the current FIFA World Cup™ cycle - turned out at Kuala Lumpur’s cavernous Bukit Jalil stadium in July as the Malayan Tigers hosted arch-rivals Singapore. The match ended 1-1, with Sali, almost inevitably, bagging the home team’s goal. However, a 5-3 scoreline in the return ended Malaysia’s Brazil 2014 hopes before they had begun.

That disappointment came barely six months after what was arguably the biggest moment in Malaysia’s football history as they claimed the regional title for the first time. It was a genuine moment of national euphoria and the softly-spoken Sali was front and centre of the action on and off the field. Sali’s five goals effectively proved the difference for the Malayan Tigers in lifting the crown, with the athletic frontman collecting the tournament’s top goalscorer award.

“It [Suzuki Cup] was a big achievement for me,” said Sali. “It was something that I dreamed of before and I never thought I could get the goalscorer award.” It was, he says, the turning point in his career. “It was a very sweet year for me.”

Now the challenge is to maintain the impetus - “We have some momentum now,” as Sali puts it. Malaysia are building for success and if achieved, Sali, one feels, will be key. “For the next year we want to win the Suzuki Cup again, and then our goal is to qualify for the [2015] Asian Cup,” he says. “We can achieve it if we work hard for our target and have the right preparation.”